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Vanilla extract – Nothing is quicker to put together, and nothing is better appreciated than this lovely gift from the kitchen.

Food and Drink

Easy treats from a busy kitchen

You can make these gifts in minutes, but they are still special

Dorothy Read and her family run the Readmore Inn in Bellows Falls, where she has made these recipes for her guests.

BELLOWS FALLS—Relax. Time is tight just about now, but we still want to treat our family and friends with wonderful creations from our kitchen, morsels we create once a year.

Cookies and breads top the list of holiday offerings, and often we have family recipes everyone craves and expects.

I think about the sour-cream coffee cake my mother made for us all to enjoy for Christmas breakfast. It was a lot of work. But I also think about the lovely jars of marmalade, applesauce, and pickles she prepared all year and decorated in mere moments for the holidays. Smart.

Her example was that these gifts don’t need to be so time-consuming they wear you out. You can round out your repertoire with a number of easy treats. You can make these gifts in minutes, but they are still special. The most time-consuming part of the process is finding containers to use — and, in a pinch, canning jars will work for them all!

Vanilla extract from your kitchen is a special gift that will be remembered all year. Chocolate-dipped dried and candied fruit take minutes to make, and while spiced nuts take a bit more time, all three can easily be accomplished in one afternoon, leaving lots of time to listen to music and fuss with labels and bows! If you like, take the time to write out the recipe on a little card to include so they can recreate the treat.

Make an afternoon of it: a nice respite in a hectic time, a gift to yourself.

Glazed spiced nuts

Use whatever nuts you love! You can add more or less cayenne in this recipe if you wish to adjust the heat, and more brown sugar if you like things a little sweeter.

I’ve used tamari because it does not contain gluten, but if that is not an issue you can also use any regular soy sauce. The freshly dried rosemary makes a difference.

¶4 cups mixed nuts, unsalted

¶{1/4} cup extra virgin olive oil

¶{1/2} tsp. ground cumin

¶1 tsp. sweet paprika

¶2 tsp. ground rosemary, plus stems (see ingredient note below)

¶{1/4} tsp. cayenne

¶{1/3} cup brown sugar

¶2 Tbsp. orange juice

¶1 Tbsp. low-sodium tamari

Make the ground rosemary, below. In a pinch, you can substitute from the market, but note that the flavor might not be as pronounced, so if that’s the case, use a wee bit more.

Line a baking sheet with parchment sprayed with oil and set aside. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. You are ready!

In a large, dry skillet, over medium-high heat, toast the nuts for around 5 minutes, keeping them moving. Don’t walk away! You will know when they are ready when they start to perfume the air and you see some brown. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Wipe out of the pan any browned bits of nut skins. Immediately, add the olive oil, cumin, paprika, rosemary (along with the reserved stems), and cayenne to let the herbs infuse. Set aside for 15 minutes or so — no hurry, you’ll get back to it soon enough. Remember, this is your chill time.

Add the brown sugar, orange juice, and tamari, and mix well. Place back on the burner on medium and cook for 5 minutes or so, until everything is well-blended.

Fish out the rosemary stems and add the reserved nuts. Mix well, then pour out onto the baking dish. Spread this single layer, sprinkle it with coarse salt and a few grinds of pepper, and place in the middle rack of your oven.

Bake for 10 minutes. Stir the nuts, then return them to the oven for another 5 minutes or so. You will notice the liquid has thickened and is starting to bubble. Remove from the oven and let cool.

When the nuts have cooled a little, use a thin spatula to break them apart. Do so again before they are completely cooled to avoid clumping.

Place in jars or cellophane bags, and pretty them up for gift giving. These freeze nicely, so you can make them weeks in advance. You can also mix them with dried fruits and chocolate chips for a trail-mix type of snack.

Fresh ground dried rosemary: This is going to have far more flavor than any dried rosemary you’ll get on the market shelf.

I dry the fresh rosemary for grinding by placing in a low oven, 200 degrees F, until dry to the touch. You can also leave it in your gas oven with the pilot light lit overnight.

In a pinch, dry your rosemary for 1–2 minutes in your microwave between layers of paper towels — the easiest technique. Check at 30-second intervals. The rosemary will be dry but still nicely green.

I grind mine in an old coffee grinder I dedicated to spices, or in my mortar and pestle. A small food processor works well, too.

Homemade vanilla extract

The fastest gift to make is homemade vanilla, and it happens to be the one that is most appreciated and remembered.

In the time it takes to fill your bottles with spirits and tuck in the beans, you are done. Homemade is not only more delicious than bottled, it is far less expensive. Have you priced good vanilla recently?

You can use vodka for an unaltered vanilla flavor, bourbon for a deeper flavor, or dark rum for a very pronounced rum/vanilla accent. For everyday use, I prefer the vodka, but I make the others for different cooking experiences.

Although this process is quick and simple, it needs time to work, and that means patience. Don’t even bother to check it for a few months, so if you are making this as a gift right now, let your future recipient know they will have to keep an eye out for it. If you make it now, even though by Christmas there will already be some nice color in the spirits, it won’t be ready.

The technique: In a 1-quart canning jar, run through the dishwasher, place 10 fresh vanilla beans, each slit along its length to release the millions of little black seeds that look like a black gummy paste. Place the split beans in the jar, and fill with the spirits.

Cover, shake, and set aside in a dark place to let it work. I shake the jar now and then, and occasionally open it up to take a whiff to see how it is gestating, and enjoy the perfume. When ready, break down into smaller bottles for ease of use.

At Christmastime, when I am making these for gifts, I fill smaller bottles directly, adding the beans according to size, usually two or three. I have purchased some jars. Other types of jars I saved originally contained hot sauce (because it has a cute little wooden top) or even soy sauce (because it holds a lot).

I buy my vanilla beans online, usually 25 to 40 to a bundle, and my sources are quite reasonably priced. I prefer Tahitian, but the Madagascar and Mexican are lovely, too. Buy less-expensive ingredients: this is not the place to use a $4 bean or top-shelf vodka!

When the vanilla is all used up, dry out the pod and tuck in a small container of sugar to infuse it with flavor and fragrance. Use this flavored sugar on cookies, toast, desserts, and fresh fruit.

Chocolate-dipped dried fruit

You can make this recipe from start to finish in 15 minutes! I have made these dipped fruits for the past five or six years, and now they are a holiday tradition in our family, almost like they’ve always been there. They look beautiful on a platter for a party, or packed in a tin lined with parchment paper.

Use whatever dried fruit you love. By the way, this is a great dip for fresh fruit as well: think chocolate-dipped strawberries when they are in season, cherries, pear slices, etc., so keep this in mind for next summer.

¶10 ounces dark chocolate baking chips

¶Your choice of dried apricots, figs, candied ginger or orange peel, or other favorite (see sidebar)

Place roughly two-thirds of the chips in a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water. Don’t let the bowl touch the water. Melt the chocolate, whisking gently. When it is just about melted, remove the bowl from the heat and add the rest of the chocolate, stirring gently until no lumps remain. This will cool and temper the chocolate.

Dip your fruit in the chocolate to the two-thirds mark, leaving the rest exposed. Place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment and place in the refrigerator just until set.

After the chocolate is set, keep the fruit at room temperature in a cool place. Remove to a platter or packaging box.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #437 (Wednesday, December 6, 2017). This story appeared on page C1.

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